TOKYO (Reuters) – The United States and Japan have detected signs that North Korea is preparing to launch a ballistic missile capable of reaching almost anywhere in Japan, Japanese government sources said Thursday.
The preparations were detected after the reclusive communist state refused to take part in a fourth round of six-party talks on ending its nuclear ambitions and said it would never give up its nuclear deterrent.
Tokyo and Washington had detected the signs after analyzing data from reconnaissance satellites and radio traffic, the Japanese government sources said.
North Korean military vehicles, soldiers and possibly missile engineers were converging on several Rodong missile bases in the northeastern part of the isolated communist state, they said.
The signs were first detected Tuesday, the sources said.
“At this stage we don’t think North Korea’s missile launch is imminent,” one source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “But we still don’t know whether North Korea is serious about missile launches.”
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said late on Thursday North Korea was unlikely to test-fire another ballistic missile, Kyodo news reported.
“I think the possibility of launching one is low,” Kyodo quoted Koizumi as telling reporters. He didn’t elaborate.
Pyongyang said Thursday the United States had chosen Japan as a “strategic vantage point” to implement a pre-emptive attack, a move it said aimed to bring North Korea under U.S. control.
“(The United States) plans to use Japan as an advance base in hurling into the Korean Peninsula a task force from its mainland and other areas in case of its emergency,” said Rodong Sinmun, the North’s main daily newspaper.
North Korea shocked the world when it fired a missile over Japan in 1998. The test of the Taepodong ballistic missile demonstrated that major population areas, including Tokyo, were within the estimated 600-mile range of the missile.
South Korean Vice Unification Minister Rhee Bong-jo said on Thursday he could not rule out the possibility of North Korea test-firing a missile again.
“Activities related to North Korea’s missiles have been detected recently,” Rhee told reporters in Seoul.
“But our assessment is that they are likely part of an annual exercise by a North Korean missile unit,” he said. “We cannot rule out the possibility of a test firing, so South Korean and U.S. authorities are following the indications.”
JAPAN ON ALERT
Japan’s defense ministry Tuesday sent two destroyers — one equipped with an Aegis radar system — and an EP-3 electronic surveillance aircraft to the Sea of Japan to boost its early warning and surveillance abilities, the government sources said.
The news prompted Japanese government officials to hold an ad hoc meeting at the prime minister’s official residence and analyze the intelligence on the latest North Korean move.
Officials declined to give details on the meeting.
Many of the Rodong missies are stored underground, but there were no signs that liquid fuel had been injected into any, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper quoted government sources as saying.
The newspaper quoted missile experts as saying it could take up to two weeks to prepare for a launch.
North Korea is thought to have one or two nuclear bombs and experts believe it has deployed as many as 200 Rodong missiles, which have a range of about 1,300 km (800 miles) and are capable of hitting Japan.
The launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea would raise tension in Northeast Asia, another Japanese source said.
“It is crystal clear that North Korea will be more isolated from the international community if they launch a ballistic missile,” he said. “What really matters to us is that this region could become less stable.”
He said any North Korean missile venture could jeopardize the six-party talks on its nuclear weapons ambitions.
China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States are trying to persuade the North to ditch its suspected nuclear programs in exchange for security guarantees and energy aid. North Korea said last weekend it would never give up its nuclear deterrent.
A fourth round of talks had been scheduled for this month but North Korea has said it sees no point in more negotiations because of what it describes as Washington’s “hostile” policy.